On Writing and Saying Something True—Marilynne Robinson, Author

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Episode Notes

This is our season two premiere, and we’re starting out in a special way—not with brunch, but with a quiet coffee with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne visited campus this fall as a keynote speaker for the 2018-19 Notre Dame Forum on the theme of “The Catholic Artistic Heritage.”

A professor emerita at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Marilynne has written four novels and several books of nonfiction, including a collection of essays published earlier this year titled What Are We Doing Here? Her work has been honored with multiple book awards, and President Barack Obama recognized “her grace and intelligence in writing” with a National Humanities Medal.

Our conversation began with Marilynne reading from her second novel, Gilead, the Pulitzer winner, which also received the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. From there, we talked about Gilead, broader ideas of faith and meaning, the writing process, and in a turn of phrase far more eloquent than anything we could ever muster, “the obligation to try to say something true.”  

Episode Transcript

*Note: We do our best to make these transcripts as accurate as we can. That said, if you want to quote from one of our episodes, particularly the words of our guests, please listen to the audio whenever possible. Thanks.

Ted Fox  0:00  
(voiceover) From the University of Notre Dame, this is With a Side of Knowledge. I'm your host, Ted Fox. The idea behind this show is pretty simple. A university campus is a destination for all kinds of interesting people representing all kinds of research specialties and fields of expertise, so why not invite some of these folks out to brunch--yes, I said brunch--where we'll have an informal conversation about their work, and then I'll turn those brunches into a podcast? It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

This is our season two premiere, and we're starting out in a special way: not with brunch, but with a quiet coffee with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne visited campus this fall as a keynote speaker for the 2018-19 Notre Dame Forum focused on the theme of "The Catholic Artistic Heritage." A professor emerita at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Marilynne has written four novels and several books of nonfiction, including a collection of essays published earlier this year titled, What are We Doing Here? Her work has been honored with multiple book awards, and President Barack Obama recognized "her grace and intelligence in writing" with a National Humanities Medal. Our conversation began with Marilynne reading from her second novel, Gilead, the Pulitzer winner, which also received the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. From there, we talked about Gilead, broader ideas of faith and meaning, the writing process, and in a turn of phrase far more eloquent than anything I could ever muster, "the obligation to try to say something true." (end voiceover)

So Marilynne Robinson, welcome to With a Side of Knowledge.

Marilynne Robinson  1:59  
Thank you, wonderful to be here.

Ted Fox  2:01  
Thank you for being here and at Notre Dame today. So I'd like to use your novel Gilead as a reference point for our conversation, and not only because I just read it, but it really is a magnificent book. I really enjoyed it. And rather than me trying to set the stage for the story, I'm hoping that you would be willing to read just the first two paragraphs from the first page because I think it does a great job of--it says a lot about the book, which I think in and of itself is a great accomplishment.

Marilynne Robinson  2:27  
(reading from Gilead) "I told you last night that I might be gone sometime. And you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you, You might have a very different life from mine and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing. There are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh, because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face beside your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

"It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man now when you read this--it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then--I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things."

Ted Fox  3:53  
And that was Marilynne Robinson reading from Gilead. Thank you for reading that. And just sitting here, there's so much--there's so many layers to--this is John Ames, a preacher from Gilead, Iowa, dying of a failing heart, leaving behind this letter to his son who's seven-years-old at the time. What interested you about approaching the story from that perspective, of saying, Here's a dying man leaving a note to a son who's not going to read it [until] years down the road, as opposed to a dying man just kind of having his own internal monologue reflecting about what went on in his life? Because I thought it was a really--it really added something to your approach to the book, I felt like.

Marilynne Robinson  4:35  
Well, thank you. I always have a sort of disappointing reply to a question like that because the idea of the novel, the impulse to write it, came to me with these things already all together. My initial realization that I had a novel in my mind was the thought of an old man sitting at a desk, writing a letter to a small boy who's playing on the floor beside his chair. So from the very first, my first impulse to write that novel was already composed around that situation. I don't know why. I don't know how those things happen.

Ted Fox  5:20  
Yeah. One of the things about John Ames that really drew me into the book and drew me into him as a character is, he's a preacher, but I think there's lots of things when you spend time with him, maybe aren't what we expect of a man of the cloth. Maybe we as lay people don't necessarily think a man of the cloth would talk this way. There was one point, he's talking about his decades of his preaching, and he writes in his letter to his son, "There's not a word in any of those sermons I didn't mean when I wrote it. If I had the time, I could read my way through 50 years of my innermost life. What a terrible thought." And to me that's such a human moment; that's not necessarily even a leader of a congregation. This is a human man trying to convey something to his son, and I'm wondering, what, to you, his struggles to find meaning as a preacher, as a man--what does that signify to you about who he is, or about what we can maybe even learn from him?

Marilynne Robinson  6:27  
Well, you know, one thing I would say is that when ministers talk to me after readings, they always say, I don't know what I'm gonna do with all my sermons. (laughs) But there's a way I think in which someone like John Ames, a minister of a congregation, is a kind of a human epitome, in a sense. The need continuously to articulate the experience of being human, really. I mean, I'm a very churchgoing type myself, I'm very interested watching ministers, (laughs) and it seems to me to be, you know, a very interesting, very beautiful sort of a posture to take in the world. I think that ministers are very badly treated in literature typically, you know. But I think that they have that obligation to, to try to say something true, which is not the most usual discipline that you find in the world today. (laughs) So they interest me as a type, as a presence.

Ted Fox  7:49  
I like the point that you make about ministers kind of writ large in literature. Because I certainly can't say I know this for a fact, but in reading it, I had the experience of--clearly I am not a leader of a congregation, but I could feel myself in him. And I think that probably if you were talking about him as a true-life person in a congregation somewhere, it's probably something that endears him to his congregation. And I don't feel like this is a man far removed from the people that he serves. And like you said, he's really trying to engage with the struggle of, What is meaning? What is truth? What does that mean in this mortal life that we've been given for, in his case, 76, 77 years?

Marilynne Robinson  8:29  

Ted Fox  8:32  
In addition to his young son, he has a much older godson. And I don't want to give away any of that relationship for anyone who hasn't read Gilead because it's an important part of the story. But John Ames Boughton, who shares a name with John Ames--at first when I was encountering the two of them as characters, I'm thinking, Okay, this was a nice way for a friend to pay tribute to his friend, he named his son after him. But the more I went on, I started feeling like the younger John Ames was maybe a mirror held up to Reverend John Ames. And I'm wondering if that was your intent, if that was just me kind of reading into it. And again, was that something that--did that idea come to you fully formed at the beginning before you started writing or something that revealed itself to you as you worked with those characters?

Marilynne Robinson  9:23  
There's a sense in which I think it came in the course of writing, the figure of Jack. I think that for me, he's interesting, over against John Ames because he's outside the reach of Ames, [who is] a very generous, understanding [man]. He's a problem that is a sort of--it's an issue of loyalty to his friend. It's an issue of feeling as if, if he could think about it in the right way, he would understand how to understand Jack compassionately. But it's--it's a problem.

Ted Fox  10:07  
Yeah, and I really, I think the one thing that comes out is really his, the elder John Ames' struggle to see his younger wife and his young child that he knows he's going to leave behind, and there's this younger man there who he has issues reconciling, he has issues forgiving. And probably to add insult to injury, to rub a little salt in the wound, it's like, Oh, he has the same name as me, and why is he hanging around my family so much? And, I'm a minister, and I shouldn't be hung up--I feel like I shouldn't be hung up on this. But I'm also really human, and I'm really kind of hung up on this, why is this happening?

Marilynne Robinson  10:45  
(laughs) Exactly. Exactly.

Ted Fox  10:49  
And Jack is the subject of one of your subsequent books in this trilogy, is that right?

Marilynne Robinson  10:54  
Yes. Well, he's an important figure in Home. He's the one who came home. He's been very much on my mind, I think partly because he is, by my lights, a complicated figure. I mean, I would hate to think that I wrote any character that I actually had a grip on, you know, but he's more elusive than the others.

Ted Fox  11:21  
Speaking of that, when you say, you know, [you] hate to think that you'd written a character that you had a grip on, when you commit someone to the page, so to speak, when you're working on a character, how much of their story do you feel like you know? Is it a small piece of their story, and the small piece that pertains to whatever broader story you're telling, or do you feel like you have a fully formed sense of, these are--all these details that a reader would never see, but I feel like I've been with this character enough to know what he or she is like in all those situations.

Marilynne Robinson  11:56  
Yes, the character comes far before the situations, you know, and one of the strongest feelings that I have writing is that I know a voice, and I know the character whose voice it is. And then I really don't, I don't plot anything ahead of time. I try to make it as pure an outgrowth of character as I understand it, as it can be. And voice--voice is the great test of everything.

Ted Fox  12:32  
I've had these conversations with my father-in-law before about maybe this distinction between, at least popularly, what we call religion and what we call faith. And I'm wondering if you think Reverend Ames, would he see a distinction between what we call religion and what we call faith? Or would he--are those one in the same? And I'm wondering if you feel like you share the same outlook towards the world that maybe he does in that regard?

Marilynne Robinson  13:00  
I think my outlook and his are pretty close. (laughs) I mean, that being said, of course then the interest is in testing the outlook. I don't know about--I mean, I think that those words, both "religion" and "faith," have become sort of hardened, contracted, you know. I was very interested writing Lila because I consider her to be theologically as sound as John Ames, but she has no language, no history with ...

Ted Fox  13:29  
And she is, just for background for people who haven't read Gilead, she is John's wife, who is much younger than he is and will survive beyond him. But [who] kind of showed up at the church one day and listened to him preach, and kind of--we don't get a ton about her background in Gilead, but it's very much, this is a person that maybe wasn't a devout churchgoer her whole life and just kind of showed up one day and is really affected by this man up there speaking and preaching and giving his sermons.

Marilynne Robinson  14:00  
I mean, I think it's an interesting question. I think I'm inclined toward the idea that we do not create faith in ourselves, it's--it has another source, it's created in us. Which means, among other things, that it's mysterious to us. I think that people try to put it in very specific terms. And I think that's a mistake. It's more like sunshine than it's like arithmetic, you know.

Ted Fox  14:38  
And that, I mean, that was a feeling I got reading him as a character that, again, when you go back to talk about the search for truth, is that I'm interested in truth, I'm not interested in necessarily how you choose to observe it or the rituals that you choose to observe it; I'm trying to kind of get to the nut of the thing, What is truth? What is meaning? And in his case being especially motivated to do so because he feels like, I have to leave something behind to this boy who I'm not going to be able to see grow up

Marilynne Robinson  15:12  

Ted Fox  15:14  
And again, maybe isn't always something that we always associate with a minister. Sometimes I think with a minister, we associate it with like, Oh, he knows all the rules for doing everything but maybe has he spent as much time thinking about the real truth and the real meaning behind all of it?

Marilynne Robinson  15:27  
I think in a way, we have a tendency to undervalue other people. When you're dealing with a class of people that are definitely stereotyped like ministers, preachers, I think that people have the idea that they know them because they can impose this carapace of familiarity on them. I think that it's a pity. I mean, we really, I think, reduce the richness of our experience a great deal by assuming we know things that we don't know.

Ted Fox  16:00  
I had a theology professor here at Notre Dame my freshman year, one thing that--you have those moments where someone says something to you that kind of sticks with you all through your life, and he's an Episcopalian minister teaching at a Catholic university, but he said, "Never assume you have a monopoly on the truth." And that's something that's always kind of stuck with me in terms of just trying to be open to the experience of the world and open to what I think Reverend Ames is doing, of trying to find that meaning, how he's encountered it in Gilead, Iowa, and how it resonates on a cosmic level beyond that. And I think it's a really valuable pursuit, and it's a great thing to be able to go along with him and watch him kind of do that spiritual heavy-lifting, and try and put yourself in those shoes, too.

So Gilead was published in 2004, and it was your first novel in almost 25 years, but you were working in nonfiction and essays in that period in between. And I should point out it's not like the first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980 wasn't a success; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer. So it wasn't, Oh, you published this novel, we're not interested in any more novels.

Marilynne Robinson  17:14  

Ted Fox  17:15  
What drew you to working in kind of those different genres for that extended period of time? And then what brought you back to fiction?

Marilynne Robinson  17:23  
A couple of answers to that. For one thing, I was not content with the kind of contemporary writing that I was seeing, and I was not experienced as a writer myself. It occurred to me that I could write about the place I grew up in because nobody else had. I had it to myself, you know. And so that was very satisfying to me. I could use it for my--it blossomed for me. But then I didn't want to use the same solution again.

And the other thing that bothered me is that I'd enough sort of research outside the main lines of consensus to feel very strongly that I'd been taught to accept as true things that I could not, in fact, accept as true, you know. I feel that I was well and carefully educated in the American tradition, but that for some reason, I became uneasy with the fact that who people talked about, you know, [as] primary texts, which, in fact, I think perhaps nobody read for generations and that sort of thing. And they had gone through the distortions that things that people do when they don't actually look at the original message, you know. I just had this sort of generalized discomfort with the idea that if I were writing outside of my own little special terrain, I would be in danger of being the sort of conduit of received opinion that I couldn't justify, couldn't live in. So I spent about 24 years reading. (laughs) And essays came from that.

But what I wanted to do was sort of put myself on a mental terrain that I could feel was solid under my feet. That's a hard thing to do, you know, because you feel so saturated with--well, you're continuously saturated with--all kinds of, it's a cliche to say cliches, but ... (laughs) So I did that. And at a certain point, I didn't decide I was done, of course you could never be done. But I just got this idea for a novel. It was just there. It's a funny thing, but it's a very distinctive feeling, you know? Why you would think this one sort of strange image in my mind would unfold at such length, but you can tell. You can tell.

Ted Fox  20:06  
Do you, having worked in an essay/nonfiction format and written novels, do you find one to be more challenging to tackle as a writer than the other? Or are they just different?

Marilynne Robinson  20:22  
Yeah, just different. It depends on what's on my mind.

Ted Fox  20:25  
Yeah. Is one more fulfilling than the other?

Marilynne Robinson  20:30  
Well, there's so mutually dependent. I mean, my whole--the fact of the difficulty of writing fiction is what produced my nonfiction.

Ted Fox  20:41  
Yeah. Speaking of nonfiction, you had a new book of essays come out earlier this year, and it's titled What are We Doing Here? 

Marilynne Robinson  20:52  

Ted Fox  20:52  
That's a pretty big question.

Marilynne Robinson  20:53  

Ted Fox  20:54  
How do you go about trying to answer it in that book? What do you--what are you tackling? What are you taking on in that book?

Marilynne Robinson  21:02  
Well, I'd have to look at the table of contents. (laughs) I have certain characteristic concerns, you know, certainly education, culture, how we--how we sustain the narrative that we tell ourselves about what matters and who matters, in fact, although that ought not even to be a question. In a way, I'm always trying to sort of disrupt what I take to be conventional thinking, for no other reason really than to show that it can be done. I mean, I'm sure there are a 1000 other ways of disrupting the same conventions, you know, but in principle, if you draw attention to the fact of the vulnerability of certain assumptions or certain ideas, then it sort of opens the world that they would otherwise dominate.

Ted Fox  21:54  
Are those assumptions when you're writing in that way, is your writing a process for you to work through your own questioning of those assumptions, or is it something that you approach once you feel like, Okay, I've kind of settled on a position, whether it's for or against something that's maybe received as knowledge? Do you wait 'til you're at that point? Or is the writing really more--is it an active process of you trying to sort through those things?

Marilynne Robinson  22:23  
It's usually quite active. I mean, I'm very interested in the mind, you know, because it seems to have its own agenda. It's sort of, Alright, if you say so. But often, I will come across something in any context, and usually something written with assurance in whatever context, and I think, That doesn't seem right. There's something wrong with that. And often, I don't know except for the kind of discomfort that I feel in seeing this asserted and accepted. And then I think, Well, I have a lecture coming up. (laughs) It's a pretext, you know, for sorting out what's bothering me here.

Ted Fox  23:07  
You're a professor emeritus at the Iowa Writers Workshop. And when you are working with young writers who are trying to get there, you talked about trying to develop what kind of voice am I going to write in, and trying to develop their craft. Is there--I don't want to say the one piece of advice that you give them-- but is there something that you try to consistently impart with younger writers to try and--as they're trying to kind of find out, Okay, who am I? Who is my voice going to be, what kind of issues do I care about, and how can I get those out into the world?

Marilynne Robinson  23:46  
Well, you tell them that those are exactly the things they should be focused on. It takes people a while, or in most cases it does. One of the things that we did basically was when we were discussing somebody's writing say, What's the best moment in this manuscript, what's the best paragraph, what's the best ... And when you do that, you're sensitizing them to where their imagination is really functioning. And it's an interesting thing to do because there's usually a lot of consensus about what is the best, what makes them feel that kind of surprising recognition, you know, that is always triggered by good writing. One of the things that's been a real benefit in the last few years is that suddenly after, you know, 80 years of wishing it would happen, we have quite a diverse student population. And I don't know what the change was, but suddenly it's true, and if somebody writes something that feels true and moving about his or her own experience, then that sensitizes other people in the room to the qualities of their experience, you know? And there's a certain kind of, of new vitality, I think because there's a new attentiveness that more or less runs right across the student population.

Ted Fox  25:15  
There are a lot of different--I think writing is one of those fields where there are, there's a lot of different paths to success. It's a difficult journey to get to the point where you sell a book, and it just shows up on shelves in a bookstore, but some people go through an M.F.A. program, some people--I believe you have your Ph.D., right?

Marilynne Robinson  25:25  

Ted Fox  25:25  
So you have a Ph.D. Some folks--I can speak from personal experience on this--just say, Okay, I'm just going to start writing and kind of see where that takes me. Certainly not asking you to say, Oh, this one is better than the other, but I'm wondering what are kind of some of the unique experiences that maybe you get going through a program where you're kind of in community with other writers that maybe you don't get if you're more kind of--speaking of popular imagination to people--the writer kind of tucked off somewhere secluded, just kind of hammering things out. I'm wondering about that community of writers, what that brings to people's writing that you've seen in your own experience.

Marilynne Robinson  26:21  
Right. Well, seclusion is always important, no matter what community you're in, if you're going to be a writer. I mean, I think it is possible that workshop situations can be destructive, you have to be very careful. At Iowa, we say things like, We want everyone to be as good a writer when they leave as they were when they came--this sort of thing, you know, first do no harm, etc. (laughs) The place has such a long history and anecdotes that are often well-known to people that come there, and one of the things that's true is that friendships have started in the workshop that continue throughout people's whole lives as writers. And it goes from the early sleeping-on-each-other's-couches phase to, you know, meaningful letters that go into the Beinecke, you know. People have a lot of sort of, I think, mutual respect there because it's very hard to get in, so you can have a generous assumption about whoever shows up.

We have a very--we hardly even look at letters of recommendation or academic history or anything like that. We just go by what we can see in the prose, which means that we have a very open sort of classroom of people from all kinds of backgrounds, and we tell them, we talk to them about the importance of understanding the value of criticism even if you don't like the way that you're being criticized and so on. We make a very conscious attempt to create a collaborative environment. There is no--they are not in competition with each other. I mean, in the sense that in one class 10 people can publish novels, in another two people publish novels, but it's not because they're elbowing their way past other people, you know. I mean, there's always room at the top, and they can be very, very substantial help to each other as readers, critics. I think that that's a large part of it.

Ted Fox  28:42  
Can you--I don't know if you can or not--can you tell me, tell us, what's next for you, what you're working on now, or is that a closely kept secret?

Marilynne Robinson  28:52  
(laughs) Actually, I'm giving the Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge University. And I've given four; I have four still to give (laughs). These lecture series. They're on the Old Testament. They are, of course, proposing a new method of criticism, a new method of reading, that dismisses the sort of documentary hypothesis approach, which I think is completely miscalculated and destructive--she said. (laughs) Never one to overstate. (laughs)

Ted Fox  29:35  
(laughs) Just putting it out there, right? So the last thing I wanted to ask you, and you talked about earlier, how maybe similar that you and John Ames are in terms of your--maybe your outlook on things. And there was, again, going back to Gilead, there was a spot, there was a line in there, that rung so true for me as someone who--you know, as I was saying to you before we started recording, plies their hand at writing, not to the same, certainly not to the same level of acclaim, but rung so true to me. Again, he's talking about his sermons, he's going back and looking at them. And he said, "So often I have known, right there in the pulpit, even as I've read the words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them." And I'm wondering, and maybe it gives hope to all the writers out there, do you, Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winner, recipient of the National Humanities Medal, do you ever still feel that way when you're looking at your own writing? And if so, how do you motivate yourself, pull yourself through that to keep going with what you're working on?

Marilynne Robinson  30:40  
Oh, I think the thing is, you don't get past that feeling, you get used to that feeling, you know? I very rarely read anything I have written. I only read when I'm working--you know, I do what I'm working on at the time. I have never written the book that I sat down to write. I've probably never written the paragraph I sat down to write. That's just, it's one of those--you know, I was talking before about the mind and its strangeness. You can have an idea and even a very strong sense of the idea. And then there is some, you know, you're asking a slightly inept, intervening influence to find words, and the words are never quite right. Or sometimes they go off in a completely different direction, which can be a very good thing, really. But you realize that you have thoughts that are not accessible to you--which is, I think, a very interesting thing. It's almost as if you have a life beyond your life. So the frustration becomes interesting.

Ted Fox  31:52  
You talked that--there was one point where I think John Ames referred to, it wasn't two voices. It wasn't [what] we always think of, kind of the little person inside your head and then you, but it was three voices because it was the one that has the thought, the internal one that interprets what the thought was, and then the outward facing part. And it's kind of that same idea of, I think we've all had that feeling of, you know there's things there, but you realize, even when you're, you know, as accomplished as an author as you are, that we're an imperfect medium for trying to get those thoughts and those feelings out of us onto a piece of paper.

Marilynne Robinson  32:29  
Which is why you try again the next day. (laughs)

Ted Fox  32:34  
Marilynne Robinson, this has really been a pleasure to have you here. Thank you so much for making time for us.

Marilynne Robinson  32:39  
Thank you. It's been a pleasure

Ted Fox  32:41  
With a Side of Knowledge is a production of the Office of the Provost at the University of Notre Dame. For more, visit provost.nd.edu/podcast.